Organization Helps Autistic Children Grow Through Play

Play is important for children. It can exercise your imagination and forge friendships. A Central Illinois organization is utilizing it further by using it to help kids with autism learn and grow.

Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters is part of Easter Seals, an organization that has been helping not only those with disabilities and special needs but also their families for almost 100 years.

The PLAY Project, which is located in numerous states across the United States and also in a number of countries throughout the world, has been at Easter Seals for 10 years, and its six level process is not initially about getting the child on the parent’s wavelength. It is the opposite.

“One of the things [we do] is joining the child where they’re at [and] not to ask questions, not to have our own agenda but to really follow the child’s lead,” Amy Watt, a developmental therapist and PLAY Project consultant, said. “Following the child’s lead is a big part of the PLAY project. We join the child where they’re at and try to engage them there and then take them where we want them to go.”

At Easter Seals, this method is called the Rabbit Hole. Kids are not yanked out to their parent’s level by their ears. Instead the child is engaged and comes out of the hole by themself.

Some of the six levels include simply being with the child as they play; then joining in the child’s routine, which may be lining up cars; after going through the child’s routine three to five times, the parent will slightly change the routine so it is more difficult. The third step opens up communication circles and expands the child’s play.

It typically takes children a year or so to go through all the levels. Sessions with a PLAY Project consultant are usually once a month and last for three hours. The consultant will teach the parents skills and techniques to use at home.

Watt has found it more effective to focus on play as it tends to get kids with autism further along than when the focus is on education. The key is social and emotional peace.

“You can always teach a child their ABCs, but to really focus on that social peace, it’s what’s going to take them the long way since they’re able to ask for a drink when they go to a restaurant or able to go up to someone, if they’re lost in Walmart, to tell them [that they are lost],” Watt said. “You know, some of those more functional things.”

The PLAY Project recommends 20 to 25 hours of play a week. Watt says it can be difficult for some families to find the time each day to sit down and play, but the PLAY consultants help families to integrate play into a family’s everyday life.

You can donate to Easter Seals through their WMBD 31 telethon on March 1. You can also volunteer at the organization. For more information about Easter Seals, the PLAY Project, the telethon and/or volunteering, you can call Easter Seals Central Illinois branch at 309-686-1177.

What autistic children struggle with the most varies from child to child. Some have sensory problems, and they do not like to be touched. Some are the opposite. Others suffer from anxiety when their world is not the same, which is why some line up cars. Children with autism also tend to develop speech a bit later than kids without autism, and they usually like to be alone.

Lynde France is a mother of twins. One of them is a 6-year-old boy named Landon who was first diagnosed with autism when he was 3 at the Easter Seals in Bloomington. That is where France and her husband discovered the project and within two months the family had their first session.

The mother of two liked the idea of children learning through play, and with Landon being only three when he joined, to her it seemed like a good way to foster speech and interaction with other people.

As a parent, France found one of the hardest aspects of having a child with autism was letting go of what her and her husband had dreamed Landon’s life was going to be like and instead embracing what his life could be.

“Having a twin…it’s difficult, because we have the neural typical child and then we have a child with autism,” France said. “So, really kind of realizing that the way we thought life was going to be wasn’t going to be that way, but finding the amazing things that can happen as a result.”

France has learned to enjoy the little aspects of Landon’s life that other parents might take for granted, such as him being aware of someone walking into a room and greeting them, being able to initiate a conversation, finding his sense of humor and getting a joke, and saying “I love you” unprovoked.

The PLAY Project has helped Landon in every part of his life, such as giving him more confidence, France says. Imaginative play in particular has been emphasized by the organization. Landon has literally learned how to imagine through the project. This new ability has helped the young boy in reading, writing and playing with his brother.

France believes what a developing child with autism needs is to be understood and to be able to communicate in his or her own way. She also thinks early intervention is key, because the longer you wait, the tougher the battle.

Landon has now been a part of the PLAY Project for two-and-a-half years. France wants to stay with the project for as long as possible. She does not know exactly what they will be doing when Landon eventually leaves the project, but he will still be going to his other therapy sessions with other groups throughout the year.

Both France and Watt agree that the parent’s role in the PLAY Project is crucial. One of the resources that is provided to parents is the Autism Resource Center at Easter Seals, which contains tools such as books and also picture cards that help the child communicate.

What Watt loves being able to do is help parents engage and interact with their son or daughter and to help begin that relationship between parent and child.

“Just seeing kids be[ing] able to laugh and have fun, especially with their parent and with their sibling, is just the best thing,” Watt said. “Just to see them starting to get jokes and starting to find things funny and starting to create ideas and play routines.”

“Just the start of forming that relationship…I just love seeing that, and I love being [able] to help parents really be able to engage and interact with their child and get those smiles and to get those laughs,” Watt added.